Plant returns to his roots

British singer Robert Plant's album Carry Fire is out today.
British singer Robert Plant's album Carry Fire is out today.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Ex-Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant's latest album is a mix of deep blues, mountain music, North African rhythms and Zeppelin-heavy weight

DALLAS • A few years ago, Robert Plant was suddenly overcome with an urge to return to his roots and find his own stairway to heaven.

"I know I'm emphatically British," he said. "But I didn't realise how much that was true until I'd been away for a while."

He had been living in Austin, Texas, with his then girlfriend - American singer-songwriter Patty Griffin.

For a time, he relished the opportunity to absorb American culture.

The process began several years earlier, when he teamed with bluegrass great Alison Krauss for the 2007 album Raising Sand, probably the most acclaimed project of his post-Led Zeppelin career. The pair won an Album of the Year Grammy and the LP went platinum.

"It was one of the most rewarding, classic periods of my life," he said. "And it was just such a tear to leave America and return to Britain."

Plant was calling from the lobby of the Frome Memorial Theatre in Somerset, England - within easy driving distance of his house in Shropshire. Since returning from the United States, he has lived 13km "from where I learnt how to speak French and do geometry".

Affable and chatty, he recounted tales from his past lives: as the howling frontman of Led Zeppelin; in partnership with the band's guitarist Jimmy Page as Page And Plant; a foray into 1980s synth-rock; and the rootsy solo path he has forged over the last two decades.

On the theatre stage, his band Sensational Space Shifters - an eclectic crew of British musicians - were running through solo material and reconfigured Led Zeppelin classics.

They were deep in rehearsals for a tour behind his latest album, Carry Fire, out today. It is a swirling mix of deep blues, mountain music, North African rhythms and Zeppelin-heavy weight.

"Some people don't get it," said Justin Adams, one of the band's two guitarists and a specialist in Middle Eastern and African sounds.

"Why are you interested in the blues and devotional music from Pakistan? It's not out of geographical interest, particularly.

"It's about transporting music that really takes you somewhere - a beat that makes you feel a slight sense of dread and foreboding."

Plant said his decision to return was not connected to his relationship with Griffin.

"It was my own inability to deal with the rabid attention that was paid to me - and there was kind of no way to hide it."

So he returned to the land of his birth, gathered up the band and got back to work, first with 2014 album Lullaby And... The Ceaseless Roar, and now Carry Fire.

They both largely comprise original songs, as opposed to the covers he emphasised with Krauss.

With Sensational Space Shifters, Plant embraces a modern, digital approach distinct from the analogue perfectionism of Led Zeppelin.

Various combinations of the band split off to write and record chunks of music, which were then woven together in the studio.

The result is a heady, autumnal record, blending his early influences (folk musicians Bert Jansch and John Fahey), blues-fuelled riffs, Berber sounds and Bristol trip-hop sonics. Many of the songs, including the title track, are love ballads tinged with fables.

As for his old band, he sees Page and bassist John Paul Jones "from time to time and it's very civil". The three were thrown back together last year in a high-profile copyright lawsuit over the song Stairway To Heaven, which the band won.

When Led Zeppelin ended in 1980, Plant set out to live on a more human scale. He has been emphatic about not reviving the band for a full-scale tour.

But there may be a simpler reason - maybe there is not any payday, no matter how vast, worth more than his carefully cultivated life?

"Yeah, that's true," he said.

"I know where it's at for me. I'm in an incredibly good place. For a guy like me, who was a singer in a band, who played no instrument - but just being eager to learn and experience more and more music?

"I've just been incredibly fortunate. I'm in the middle of my own joy. I don't need anything else."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2017, with the headline 'Plant returns to his roots'. Print Edition | Subscribe